Berninger & Co., supporting the recent Sleep Well Beast, had a sold-out crowd December 5 at the Anthem venue willing to follow them anywhere. (Photos follow the review.)
PHOTOS & TEXT BY ERICA BRUCE
The National’s Matt Berninger sounded more hoarse than usual at the sold out Anthem here in Washington, DC on Tuesday night. Hard to believe, as Berninger’s signature voice is usually like a more melodic Tom Waits. But like Waits, the extra rasp pushed the needle a bit more on the band’s often-melancholy lyrics, the voice breaking in all the right spots. It gave songs like “Empire Line” and “Slow Dancing in the Gym” more emotion, if that’s possible.
The scratchiness didn’t stop Berninger from his usual quips, political commentary, expressive lyric-screams, or the band’s intensity. The National are masters of the slow-burn song, the kind that starts out relatively simple then evolves into something breath-catchingly massive in terms of sound. This was, and has been largely thanks to the drumming of Bryan Devendorf. Devendorf was bathed in the darkest of the dark spots on the Anthem stage, but his presence was spotlight bright; his tribal pounding with a jazz skip is the band’s secret weapon, tapping into one’s neurotransmitters, making it visceral.
The band as a whole aren’t super active onstage and were darkly lit Tuesday, at times almost removing themselves physically to let the songs stand on their own. As the music swirled and tumbled about the ears, the audience was treated to very simple menageries of colors on the large screens behind the stage, at times looking like the splotches of a Pollock painting, at times the simplicity of a Mondrian. The latter could look cheap in the wrong hands, but the visuals were almost a pictorial representation of the music. During the moody “Lemonworld,” there were three black boxes on screen rimmed in green, with two random straight lines through them. It was not super interesting to see but it seemed to perfectly set the tone of the song.
The National didn’t remove themselves completely though. Berninger, who has a habit of heading into the crowd during a show, did just that during “Day I Die” and the encore-ending Ramones’ cover, “KKK Took My Baby Away” (which he dedicated to the “illegitimate white supremacist moron near here”). Some singers do that but are accompanied by security-not Berninger. He moved alone through the 6,000 person audience, full of faith in his fans that he’d be safe. He would have probably scaled the walls up into the balcony as he’s done before here at Daughters of American Revolution (DAR) Hall, but given the height of the first audience boxes at the Anthem, it’s probably better he didn’t.
Nine of the set’s 24 songs were from the latest release, Sleep Well Beast, but the show had a few interesting inclusions. The set started with “Santa Clara,” a song off of The Virginia EP that they’d only played in Lisbon and Amsterdam previously, but had to be scrapped due to what seemed to be an issue with Berninger’s in-ear monitor (“We’ll try it in Montreal,” he quipped). The encore kicked off with “Rylan,” a song from the early National days that has never been formally released. The Ramones cover of course (I heard someone say, “The National are the least likely band I ever expected to cover The Ramones” after the show). Nice to see a band who could just get by with the favorites still like to mix it up a bit.
The band even showed some love about the venue, which only opened in October. Said guitarist Bryce Dessner about Anthem, “Thank you so much, this place is really incredible. You guys are lucky, there aren’t many venues like this.” A unique venue for a unique band, and a crowd willing to follow them anywhere—that was The National at the Anthem last Tuesday.